Helping on the ground in Haiti

By Kevin Schweers

Many of us witnessing the devastation of earthquake-stricken Haiti have been moved to generously donate to the heroic recovery and rebuilding efforts. For William C. Drake, PharmD and NCPA member, that wasn’t enough.

Just hours after the deadly earthquake struck Haiti Jan. 12, he was getting ready to leave snowy Shelby Township, Mich., for the Caribbean island.

Drake is one of the Chief Pharmacists for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Disaster Response Teams, a blend of private sector and federal volunteers specially trained and temporarily activated for humanitarian missions at home and abroad. He did similar stints during hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.

Drake arrived in Port-au-Prince Jan. 15, initially one of eight U.S. pharmacists. He has been working 16- to 20-hour days out of the U.S. Embassy, sleeping on its lawn, and subsisting on MREs (meals ready to eat) and bottled water.

Below we have posted, with permission, some of the remarkable e-mails and pictures Drake has been sending to family and friends, including NCPA, to chronicle his experiences.

If you are interested in learning more about the federal government’s National Disaster Medical System please visit

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010

Hello to all,

At this time I’m in Haiti.

We arrived on Friday afternoon at the Airport in PAP [Port-au-Prince], Haiti.

The evening before we attempted to fly in, after dark, to a very chaotic situation.

Our plane was diverted and they decided to land on an island in Turk and Caicos chain.  Our group spent the night there.

We fly out via a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and made it to Haiti.

The airport was very busy.  Lots of planes and helicopters from many branches of service, and countries.

We staged at the airport until all flights for our members arrived, 250 people.

At that time we loaded up our equipment, in large dump trucks, along with flat beds, and a couple of taxis.   I was able to catch a seat on a taxi.   However, that put me “close” to the streets, and since it was at night, it was very interesting.

We arrived at the American Embassy after about a 20 minute ride.   It was nice to see the Embassy.  No, not the hotel, just the compound.  We rode by the UN compound, and it was devastated.

As I stated before, we knew we were coming into austere conditions.  We must carry all of our own food, which mostly consists of MRE’s.   Our only drink is bottled water, which is more than what most of the Haitian people are getting.  We slept “under the stars” last night out in the Embassy compound.   All 250 of our people, along with some Air Force, and Army personnel.   It looked like a camping jamboree in Michigan.

The remnants of a store in Port-au-PrinceI have been working out of the American Embassy most of the day.  I traveled back to the Airport to secure some of our supplies.  That was an interesting event.  I got a chance to view the streets of Port au Prince in full daylight with all of the destruction and people.   It’s almost indescribable.   We made it back to the airport.

Our challenge like all groups is logistics.  Getting supplies in.

I was also working in the American Embassy, on the second floor when the 4.5 aftershock hit this afternoon.   That is a very weird feeling when the floor is moving, etc.  I’ll admit the Embassy is built very well.  It has not sustained any damage through this whole thing and they are checking it daily.

I continue to do what I can.  We have a large amount of American Citizens here at the Embassy.  They are waiting to get out.

It looks like another night under the stars tonight.  Temps are very hot during the day, and it cools off at night.

Again if there are any great urgent needs, please contact my office and they will assist you.

Thanks and take care.


Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

Hello everyone,

I apologize for not updating you sooner.  I’ve been and am a little tired.  My work day has been averaging between 16 and 20 hours a day.

This morning, while working in the US Embassy, we got hit with a 6.1 Earthquake apparently.  I know the earthquake hit, I just didn’t know it was a 6.1

Since our command center is on the 2nd floor, and my cubical is near an outside wall, it was a very interesting feeling when the whole building started to move.  Some things fell over, but no one was hurt.  We understand some more damage occurred in the city.

Many people have been working very hard to get care to the people out in the city and countryside.  It is an enormous challenge in a country that had minimal infrastructure before the event.

Many people have been thrown here with minimal preparation.  A lot of my work for the past several days is making sure everyone under our command is properly protected from malaria.  This requires the taking of medication, doxycycline.   Additionally, shots need to be updated to include Typhoid, Hep A, and Tetnus.  Now they want everyone to have H1N1 because of an apparent breakout in the country.

Near the Presidential PalaceI am finding some of the military personnel who quickly arrived in country without some basic comfort meds or any of the malaria prophylaxis.  I was able to explain to my Commander that we need to help and support everyone in this effort. So I’ve been playing pharmacist to many very appreciative Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, and Navy personnel.   The appreciation in the eyes of these young men and women is unbelievable.    Many of them have recently returned from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.   And they tell me Thanks for being there!!!  I don’t think they understand how much we all appreciate that they are now there, guarding us, and protecting us when we go out into the city.  They are unbelievable members of our armed services, and they do it without blinking.

Our teams are staged in several sites in the city.  There are numerous other medical care sites being provided by other countries and groups.   However, it does not seem to be enough.  As I stated in one of my other emails, this country was in bad healthcare shape before, now it almost does not exist except for the groups who are now in country do to this event.

They don’t want us to drive, so we have to use local drivers for everything.  Based on how that goes, I’m actually glad I’m not driving.

"Our teams have to be moved by cattle trucks."This is nothing like a domestic disaster, where at least you can drive a distance and then at least the world is somewhat normal.  NOTHING down here is even near normal to life in the US.  That has been very humbling.

For example, we had a group of 5 Haitian men who came up to us at our Airfield Logistics base.  That is where we are storing most of our supplies that have been delivered in country to support out operation.   We need some trucks loaded and some pallets unloaded, and moved.  The only payment they asked for was for food and water.   After they worked for awhile we made them take a break and get some water and gave them an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that the military use for their troops.   We noticed they only eat about half or less of the meals.  So we asked them weren’t they hungry??  They told us that they didn’t want to eat it all, and that they were saving if for some of their family members.  Needless to say that they left with multiple MREs each, and as much water as they could carry.

Truthfully, water and food is more important, than money.   Now comes the emotionally challenging part.  When taking the break we were talking with them.   4 of the 5 had family members crushed and killed in the Earthquake.   One man lost his whole family, wife, and 3 children.   One man lost his youngest son.   You could see they grieved and probably needed to grieve more, but they had to think about their family that was alive.  Right now, at this moment, that is the most important thing……staying alive.  Working for our food and water was the best thing that had happened to them for the past week.  We told them to come back tomorrow and we can see if we can put them to work.  Bill (right) with a teammateSeveral of the guys, including myself have agreed to give up most of our MRE’s for them while we are here.  We are allowed 3 per day and I can barely eat one at this time.

As for food, I haven’t had a hot meal in over 7 days.  Nothing stronger than bottled water for the same amount of time.  I assure you I can afford to miss some calories, but a hot meal does sound so good at this time.

Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be a big day.  A lot going on, our team engaging in some of the most challenging areas.

We are not allowed to travel at night any longer, and I’m OK with that.  We had, let’s say a challenging ride the other night.

Thanks for the continued emails of support, comments, and prayer for me and my family.   I appreciate that .

Until next time, take care, and good bye from the US Embassy, in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Take care.


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